Prison

Ohioans are well aware of the opioid epidemic due to the magnitude of its effects.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the rate of opioid-related deaths in Ohio is twice the national average. The epidemic has previously prompted a response from the state, like increased coordination between state and local treatment centers.

A more controversial response to this crisis is on Tuesday’s ballot.

Issue 1 is a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would reduce existing penalties for drug-related crimes, including possessing and using illegal drugs. The extent to which this ballot measure reduces consequences for drug-related crimes has been met with criticism.

Maureen O’Connor, jurist and Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, does not support Issue 1. While she said the state prison system needs better paths to treatment, she does not believe decreased punishment will help substance abusers in the criminal justice system.

“We could not treat the addicted community without drug courts,” O’Connor said.

“Drugs courts” are specialized courts that make judgments or suggest treatment methods for offenders who use drugs.

O’Connor said the treatment community agrees that the “accountability of the court” is needed for substance abusers to get treatment. She cited statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that show many substance abusers don’t believe they have a problem.

Yet Stephen JohnsonGrove, an attorney at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, said that his arguments in favor of the issue are not against drug courts.

“Seventy-five percent of the money saved will go towards evidence-based treatment methods, like drug courts,” JohnsonGrove said.  

JohnsonGrove does not believe prison should be seen as a path to treatment.

“The trauma of jail is like pouring gasoline on a fire,” he said.  

But O’Connor has a hard time believing addicts will get help “if we have enough treatment centers.” She does not believe any projected savings from Issue 1 are necessary.

“Issue 1 makes you think we don’t have the funding for that (treatment centers),” she said, referencing millions of dollars in funding from the Violence Against Women Act.

JohnsonGrove said Issue 1 will create money for treatment on top of existing funding.

“If we get $100 million from the federal government, great! But how can we stop ourselves from making use of both (federal funding and savings from Issue 1)?” JohnsonGrove asked.

O’Connor suggested Issue 1 would make Ohio an appealing state for drug traffickers, as it would limit punishment for possessing all drugs. However, JohnsonGrove said Issue 1 has nothing to do with drug trafficking.

Ohio law dictates that possessing a certain amount of illegal drugs, such as having over 50 grams of methamphetamine, equals intent to traffic those drugs. Issue 1 would reduce the penalty for possession, not trafficking.

But the amount of certain drugs you can possess — without a trafficking charge — is frightening to some, including O’Connor.

“You can have a certain amount of date rape drugs, and if they catch you short of drugging someone, it’s just a slap on the wrist,” O’Connor said.

JohnsonGrove said the opposition’s argument about trafficking is “another case of hyperbole,” stressing that Issue 1 “doesn’t limit trafficking laws.”

If the state wanted, JohnsonGrove said, they could change the amount of drugs that constitutes a trafficking charge, eliminating some of those fears.

JohnsonGrove said voting “yes” on Issue 1 “is a vote or health and safety. Don’t give in to fear tactics.”

But O’Connor said Issue 1 “is a gamble.”

“These problems didn’t pop up overnight, and they won’t be fixed overnight. Issue 1 fails to recognize the progress being made,” O’Connor said.

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